A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships Moniker Group CEO
Upon entering a downtown San Diego warehouse, the smell of wood and leather seeps up the nostrils. One can hear chatter from every corner, hammers tinkering on metal, the whir of a sewing machine, the click clack of laptop keys and music that floats out of a producer’s studio every time the door opens. The collective sound is the sublime combination of 22 businesses that make up Moniker Warehouse, a creative space that has been referred to by the New York Times as the inspiration for much larger multi-million dollar Southern California-based developments. Moniker’s CEO, Ryan Sisson, walks through the warehouse explaining the history of Moniker Group, stopping to greet a business owner and check out a new product from one of the resident makers. This dream factory is one of the first of its kind; a next-level shared workspace and collaborative idea environment. Gaining national attention as a business that fosters Millennials’ need for community, Moniker Group has been hired by Google for their interactive element design acumen. Sisson sits at the helm of Moniker Group, which consists of the Warehouse, and six other entities from event design to furniture and retail design, to coffee making and real estate. Risen sat down with him to talk about the curious new world of shared work spaces and the new kingpins of business… creatives.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: You’re a businessman that invests in creative endeavors, but you claim that your interests didn’t originate in business.
Ryan Sisson: Right. I didn’t grow up in a business family, but for some reason I always gravitated towards business. I always loved the way things work, so I went to San Diego State for engineering. I wanted to design off-road racetracks. But engineering school is very demanding and I didn’t really love school. I felt claustrophobic in my learning. I didn’t want to do just one thing. I wanted to do everything. I transferred to University of Phoenix where I could do night school and then started working for McMillin Real Estate. I felt like it was a God-thing. I got a position way beyond what I should have gotten. It was a job cataloging their off-road racing. This was a dream job for me because as a kid I was obsessed with off-road racing. This position transitioned into a real estate role and that opened my mind to what my life could look like in that world.
RS: I worked for McMillin [a high profile commercial real estate company] companies during the recession and we went through a lot of layoffs. Eventually my number was called. Afterwards, I spent some time in Burma [India] trying to get a nonprofit off the ground. I was using creative media to gain awareness for the atrocities on the ground over there. This experience was my introduction to management, start-ups, branding and communication, all the keys to good business. In that time, I was meeting with a couple of friends on a weekly basis having white board sessions. We started meeting with an organization called Invisible Children, who have a passion for helping creatives use their talent to change the world and make an impact. And that began to open the door towards other people wanting us to whiteboard their ideas — friends with businesses who needed help getting their idea to the next level. So, we evolved into this makeshift consulting company. One day we got the opportunity to do a consulting project for a big nonprofit company and that forced us to create a company so we could cash the check that they wrote us [laughing]. We had to come up with a company name and one of the guys said, “What is our Moniker?” And Moniker just caught me. Moniker just means name. I loved it.
RM: Tell us a little about Moniker Warehouse itself. You’re home to 18,000 square feet in a prime downtown neighborhood and 22 companies. How does that all work?
RS: The space is a physical manifestation of what the company is all about. It’s a place that others can call home in order to make their dreams come true. We’ve got churches that hold services here, designers, non-profits, filmmakers, lawyers, fashion people, video makers and our whole Moniker team. We also have a whole event space that enables us to do a lot of community outreach. The Warehouse is where it all got started. It’s the original dream factory. Now we have three spaces in the city, six companies under our name and growing by the minute.
You can drive up to the top of the mountain and appreciate the view, but when you hike up that mountain it’s unbelievably spectacular. And that’s what risk does.
RM: You’ve made a lot of sacrifices to get to where you are at. What have been some of the most notable?
RS: Moniker has been around for seven years now, and for six of those years I didn’t take a paycheck. I called it a “jobby”. It required a lot of work, but it was also a great hobby and a great expression of who I was. But it required late nights and early mornings. I worked full-time at another job and worked full-time at Moniker. By the time I started taking a paycheck at Moniker we had eight full-time employees. It wasn’t just a freelance thing. It was a fully functioning company with employees and payrolls. Many times I was writing paychecks out of my own bank account. I can count on one hand the times when we were down to single dollars in our bank account. Now that we have 28 employees there’s no way I could swing a payroll out of my personal paycheck [laughing]. So there’s a whole new level of faith required.
RS: Many of our team members have been around for years. They have taken their own risks by saying I want to be a part of something bigger. They may be able to get paid more somewhere else but they decided to put their time into something new and undefined hoping to create something bigger. Risk can look like a lot of different things. For me, this business is the fullness of the expression of my faith. I think that risk has not only afforded my faith to exist, but also made my faith grow. Risk empowers the joy of our success to exist. It makes the win so much better. Risk creates the necessity to work really hard and to let go of the things you wish you could control in order to see the vision and your dream combine. You can drive up to the top of the mountain and appreciate the view, but when you hike up that mountain it’s unbelievably spectacular. And that’s what risk does.
RM: How does your faith play into the idea of creativity?
RS: I’ve wrestled with the idea of creativity a lot. So often its defined by somebody who can design or paint something. But for me, Moniker is fully an expression of creativity. I’m a left-brain creative. The left-brain is typically more analytical, but I use that to be creative and that is what you see around here at Moniker. Many people don’t think they can be creative. But their creativity may manifest in a different way. For a pastor it’s the way they reach people in their congregation. How they speak and verbalize their message…that’s creativity. For an engineer it’s how they create a product. For a musician it’s what a song sounds like. At Moniker we have to be really creative sometimes with how we’re going to pay payroll [laughing]. I am nothing special from the world’s perspective. I didn’t grow up privileged. I don’t have a crazy education from an expensive school. I don’t have a Master’s degree. I don’t have tons of experience in certain areas. I’m about as normal as it gets. But I serve an incredibly huge God. And at one point I told God I’m here to do whatever He wants. I love the story of the disciples. They were just ordinary guys – broken and lost – and they said, I’m down, let’s go. That’s what it takes to see something truly great happen. It’s not what you have, but it’s what you’re willing to give up. That’s the most important message I can tell people. I’m not here because I’m special. I’m just here because I said I would do it. And that’s where God can meet you. I want people to feel inspired, not because of who I am, but because of who He is.
RM: Many business people put ultimate value on the bottom line – money, you are a champion of people. Why?
RS: Moniker has always been about people. Our genesis story was about sitting with other people and helping them define and launch their big ideas. The thing about business is that the bottom line has to matter or the business ceases to exist. There is value in the bottom line. But the bottom line doesn’t have to be the purpose of business. My heart is to see people be fully alive. I always wanted to know what it would look like to run a company with individuals who have completely stepped into their calling and are doing what they’re supposed to do. We were created for something. If I have a company that’s made up of fully alive individuals, then we will have a great company.
There is value in the bottom line. But the bottom line doesn’t have to be the purpose of business.
RM: Moniker was recently quoted in the New York Times as the inspiration for San Diego’s new multimillion dollar project called Makers Quarter. There is such a spotlight right now for a new type of workspace. How has Moniker helped to pioneer that vision?
RS: I was recently doing research on co-working for one of the Moniker spaces that will be opening up next year. Co-working is all the rage for Millennials. While they love cool design, a cool spot, and free food, the number one reason people take to a co-working space is because of community. Community is everything. I believe we were created to be in community. I believe we were created to be amongst others in the life process. Part of what we’ve been able to create at Moniker is a great community. I look at a great community much as the same as a great relationship – people coming together looking out for the best interest of one another. In our warehouse we house competing businesses. But being close to one another actually makes them better. A rising tide lifts all ships. So, the value of being together is greater than the cost of competition. [For example,] Makers Quarter is six blocks of urban community based on sustainable living and shared work spaces. They were inspired by Moniker do the same thing [we did], but with six blocks of real estate and a lot more resources. They were inspired because we stood for something, we’re committed to who we were and we created a space that didn’t exist before. It’s been a cool opportunity to align with a city and to be a part of something great.
RM: What does the future look like for Moniker?
RS: I look up to Richard Branson of the Virgin Group, which has 200 companies that live underneath its brand. After reading about his business, I felt I had the permission to structure Moniker the way it is. Currently, Moniker exists as seven brands. It’ll be nine by the end of the first quarter of next year. We’re launching our real estate brand next year. On our design side we’re launching Moniker Made. Within our retail space called Moniker General, we have a coffee company and that will expand and go to other locations. We’re also going to be rolling out our home goods line this fall. My vision, however, is not just to create hundreds of companies beneath Moniker, but to create a program that all of our employees step into, whether you’re a barista or the president of one of our divisions, that empowers you and develops you as an individual as you journey through your time here at Moniker. I would love to see that program being used in other businesses.